Although we’re used to seeing polar bears inhabiting snowy, icy landscapes during the winter, we rarely think about these majestic beasts in any other environments as the seasons change. As summer rolls around, though, it can be amazing to see the kind of shenanigans the furry creatures get themselves into. Polar bears in Northern Canada’s Hudson Bay can be found playing in gorgeous flower fields, munching on freshly caught fish, and hunting beluga whales.
While staying at lodges run by Churchill Wild in Manitoba, Canada, wildlife and nature photographer Dennis Fast captured these incredible shots of polar bears frolicking in fields of fireweed. Surrounded by bright flowers, the playful bears can be seen rolling around, napping, and poking their heads up amongst the blooms. Come early autumn, polar bears start to wait for ice to reform in the bay so they can return to their winter hunting grounds, but for at least a short time in the summer, they get a chance to enjoy the sunshine and blossoms.
We had the chance to ask Fast a few questions about his fascinating experience photographing polar bears. Scroll down to read that exclusive interview, and be sure to check out Fast’s books Princess: A Special Polar Bear, Touch the Arctic, Wapusk: White Bear of the North, and The Land Where the Sky Begins for more of his work.
What do you love about photographing polar bears?
Polar bears have always been one of the North’s most iconic animals. Besides being arguably the largest carnivore on earth, they are also one of the most adorable. Their demeanor is mostly calm and inquisitive. It’s hard to imagine as they approach that they could actually be planning to harm you! I think it’s that heightened tension from the uncertainty of their motives that makes it so exciting to watch and photograph polar bears. Add to this the fact that they have become a litmus test for the state of our planet as it begins to unfold in the Arctic, and it’s easy to see why the whole world is fascinated by the bears.
Like many people, I love white animals, whether it is Arctic foxes, snowy owls, or polar bears. Polar bears are seldom really white, but they come closest to white when they’ve been bleached by the sun out on the ice and snow of their winter environment. However, it’s not just their colour that makes them a favourite target of my camera. They have a slow, ambling gait as they drift about looking for anything that moves. It looks like they don’t have a care in the world, and that there is nothing they are afraid off. It’s not arrogance, exactly, but a quiet confidence that we often respect in humans and that translates well to the polar bear.
Nothing in the bear’s environment escapes its notice and so, when I see one, I know it is already aware of me and that it will likely check me out. The tension mounts, and once again I hope I get a meaningful shot of this magnificent beast and live to tell the tale!
How does photographing polar bears among fireweed in the summer compare to photographing them in the ice and snow of winter?
Most people are familiar with shots of polar bears in the ice and snow of Hudson Bay in Northern Canada and in other polar regions. They are so ingrained in people’s minds that you might think the North experiences only winter.
It’s true that the winters are long and harsh, sometimes even for a polar bear. Imagine, then, how it feels for the photographer trying to cope in their environment! I have photographed the bears in conditions where the temperature hovered around -40 to -50C (-40 to 58F). Fortunately, it’s not always that cold, but it calls for multi-layers of clothing and special precautions with the camera. Frostbite is a constant concern, as is hypothermia.
So you might think that photographing them in the summer or fall would be a walk in the park. But that’s not always true, either. When temperatures soar to 30 to 35C (86 to 95F), as they sometimes do in the sub-Arctic, the bloodthirsty insects rise up with the heat. Mosquitos, black flies, horse flies, and deer flies all want your blood! They not only pester you relentlessly but they do the same to your subjects. The result is restless, twitching animals that are often unsightly with bugs when you want a close-up shot.
Sometimes fall is the best time, as there are no bugs and the days feature blue skies and gentle breezes.
How do you capture such personal, playful portraits of polar bears up close?
I must say it is a real joy to see a polar bear in my viewfinder. It is amazing to spend quality time with my favourite animal. And quality time means spending a lot of time with the bears. Wild animals need to become somewhat used to your presence and learn that you won’t harass them if they leave you alone. That is when they begin to behave normally, and for the polar bear it means it can relax and start to show you its private playful nature. Polar bears will play with anything in their environment. I have seen a huge male hold several blades of grass in his giant paws and chew on them for a long time as though he enjoyed the texture. On another occasion, I laughed out loud as I watched a relaxed polar bear bare his teeth to pluck a single flower from a stem of fireweed blossoms and roll it around between his lips! Perhaps he viewed it as an appetizer.
In the end, I hope my photos inspire people to care about all wildlife and to do their part in ensuring that they are around for all future generations. It would be a shame to lose something as iconic as the polar bear.
Dennis Fast: Website
My Modern Met granted permission to use photos by Dennis Fast.